Meet five SBU women who are inspiring others to reach for their dreams
By Ellen Cooke
Illustration by Anna Godeassi
With ingenuity, teamwork and dedication, women across Stony Brook University (SBU) are innovating new ways to have a significant impact on students, fellow educators, local communities and beyond through their teaching, mentoring and research. They’re helping our community reimagine the future and drive change every day, bringing others along for the ride. And while they come from different disciplines, they share a common mission: to help the university and society at large thrive. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we interviewed five such female influencers, highlighting their profound and ongoing contributions.
Learn more about each of these incredible women by reading their stories below.
Mei-Lin “Ete” Chan
Paying it Forward
Mei-Lin “Ete” Chan’s journey to achieving her own dreams has motivated her to help others obtain theirs. The SBU research assistant professor traveled from her home in Hong Kong to the U.S. for college, arriving on campus in 2012 to complete postdoctoral work in biomedical engineering.
“As a first-generation college student who came from a humble family, I know what it’s like to be underrepresented and not have career or higher education role models growing up,” she said. “Now I’m in a position to pay forward the support I received from teachers all along my path. That’s one of the things that energizes me most. And Stony Brook provides an ideal environment to do that.”
As she pursues her advanced research and development of technologies to improve obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer treatments, Chan is equally committed to helping young students discover opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through several programs she initiated.
To inspire that next generation of STEM innovators, Chan codeveloped DIY Prosthetics in Fall 2021 — an endeavor she believes is making a difference for students who may not have seen themselves in these roles. To date, more than 100 precollege students of diverse backgrounds have participated, crafting cardboard prosthetic hands using simple household items.
Chan also worked with a team of student volunteers from the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS) to create the Biomedical Engineering Academy. The virtual five-session course — which started in spring 2021 and repeated last July — was designed to spread awareness and interest in engineering to Long Island middle schoolers. It taught them the fundamentals of biomedical engineering, provided hands-on experience of the essential skills of an engineer, and engaged them through a variety of interactive activities.
But that’s not where her influence ends. Luigia Than ’22, electrical engineering, works with Chan to promote STEAM (STEM + art) and interdisciplinary research. “Dr. Chan has helped me grow as an engineer and a person and is a real role model to me — as an educator who is so engaged with her work and all her students, an engineer who works on so many different projects, and a woman of color in a STEM field,” she said.
Putting Humanities Center Stage
Amy Cook, a professor and associate dean in SBU’s Department of English and College of Arts and Sciences, has fought to ensure the humanities get the attention they deserve as viable career options. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for a woman who’s spent her career pursuing endeavors that integrate research in the cognitive sciences with the arts and humanities to approach some of society’s biggest challenges from a new angle. Cook, who began her career as an actor and director, also focuses her energies on helping secure grants for fellow faculty doing interdisciplinary work.
“That’s where real growth and incredible innovations come,” said Cook, who was recently named the chair for the search for SBU’s new provost. “We’re not in the job of thinking what’s always been; we’re here to teach future generations what could be.”
She’s also dedicated to helping fellow educators find the funding grants they need to make that kind of impact. Matthew Lerner, associate professor of clinical psychology, is one of several beneficiaries. As research director of The Autism Initiative, Lerner is involved with an interdisciplinary group of scientists, stakeholders and students at SBU and in the community coordinating research, services and outreach to improve the lives of people on the autism spectrum and their families. Thanks in part to Cook’s perseverance, this university-wide center — engaging more than 20 departments, 70 faculty and 150 outside agencies — is now partnering with the School of Professional Development to grow and expand its reach.
“Because it encompasses research, clinical and programmatic efforts, traditional granting and fundraising haven’t always been available,” explained Lerner. “When others found the nontraditional structure too difficult to understand, Dr. Cook spent months tirelessly exploring creative new ways to support its growth. The resulting impact on campus and across the region has been magnified beyond what otherwise could have been envisioned.”
Cook is also committed to expanding diversity in typically nondiverse fields and helping rising stars play their own leading roles in the humanities. One recent grant she secured will help diversify applicants in the geosciences. Five students from minority-serving CUNY Lehman College in the Bronx will spend this summer getting paid to work in our scientists’ labs.
And the Academy of Civic Life — available through another recent grant — is a free precollege, for-credit program where students spend three weeks on campus to study, read about and debate civics, politics, labor and the history of democratic movements. Following that, they take what they’ve learned into their communities to carry out civic engagement projects.
“Our ultimate mission,” said Cook, “is to work with students and community leaders to support a diverse and civically engaged local community with equitable access to higher education.”
Alda Center for Communicating Science
Advancing Inclusion in STEM
Alix Dehayem fell in love with physics when she was 15. If there’s one thing that excites her as much as (or more than) the science itself, it’s sharing her passion with others — something she’s achieving at SBU, following her incredible legacy of inspiring young women across Africa, Asia and Latin America to explore and excel in STEM fields.
Dehayem grew up in Cameroon and studied and worked in France and Kenya before coming to the United States to serve as the coordinator for the Alda Center’s Women in STEM Leadership Program in November 2020. She codesigned and runs this donor-funded initiative, which empowers women and other underrepresented groups from all over the country to rise to decision-making positions in STEM fields. Participants go through a series of professional development workshops, enjoy ongoing networking opportunities, and are provided the ability to apply for funds for self-styled projects supporting minorities in STEM.
In only 17 months, the program had reached 111 women from a wide range of fields, on campus and off, said Dehayem, “giving them the opportunity to strengthen their leadership and communication skills, and to connect with other like-minded professionals to create a lasting, supportive network and long-term bonds. I’m very proud of the program’s progress and accomplishments, and very inspired by the enthusiasm of program participants who are helping create the change we all want and need to see in STEM.”
So far, she said, three funded empowerment projects are being implemented, all designed to work with school-age children and two specifically targeting underserved communities. And there are four more projects on the way.
Making STEM fields inclusive and accessible is nothing new to Dehayem, who co-founded the Eastern Africa Network for Women in Basic Science in 2018. This far-reaching program mentors female students, organizes outreach activities and school visits, and weaves gender awareness into teaching curriculums. It has supported hundreds of women and girls and continues to thrive today.
Helping establish a network represented in five countries — Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Rwanda and Tanzania — and serving on the executive committee “with brilliant African women scientists was very exciting to me,” she said. “I knew that together our joined efforts would be stronger and more impactful. And, on a personal level, it has been such a rewarding experience to know I played a role, even if it is just a small one, in inspiring women and girls to create their own scientific identity as they pursue STEM career pathways.”
The mission that started halfway around the world is one Dehayem remains fervently committed to at Stony Brook: “I am truly passionate about promoting more diversity, equity and inclusion in the STEM fields. I see myself in a leadership role that implements programs where quality, innovation and multidisciplinary efforts meet. And I’m proud and amazed to be in a system where we celebrate and cultivate diversity of skill, personality, talent and culture, all along the social spectrum.”
Mentee Taylor Medwig-Kinney, a PhD candidate in genetics, worked with Dehayem to develop a project to empower women. It’s called “Project WORMS” (Women for Outreach and Role Models in Science), so named as the program exposes middle and high school students to C. elegans worm research through scientific demonstrations and hands-on research activities. Scheduled to start this spring, the program is designed to spur interest in STEM research, demonstrate that higher education and STEM careers are accessible, and help students identify women scientist role models and mentors.
“My outreach program would not have gotten off the ground without Dr. Dehayem, who has always believed in me and helped me see my vision through,” said Medwig-Kinney.
Sparking Scientific Excellence
Anissa Abi-Dargham, an internationally recognized leader in molecular imaging of the brain functioning related to schizophrenia and concurrent addiction, knew from an early age what she wanted to do. “I’ve always been fascinated in finding out how the brain works and what causes psychosis,” she said. “Hearing people’s stories, and searching for solutions, is the most interesting thing I can engage in.”
Most of her distinguished career, which includes more than 20 years at Columbia University in New York, has focused on developing tools to image the neurochemical alterations in the brains of patients with schizophrenia and addictions. As vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry and associate dean for Clinical Translational Science, Abi-Dargham and team are on the verge of uncovering some of the biological triggers for schizophrenia, which she considers the most debilitating mental illness.
“The beauty of psychiatry is it has so many interconnections to other fields of study — for example, how brain function affects behavior and how behavior can then affect society,” said Abu-Dargham. “And the environment here is such that I can both fulfill my scientific interests and pursue my passion of mentoring today’s students to help solve tomorrow’s societal issues.” She’s excited, too, about leading larger-scale efforts that are helping further the advancement of science.
Abi-Dargham, for example, is co-lead for the campuswide Strategic Budget Initiative’s (SBI) Enhance Research task, where she plays a key part in accelerating research and innovation, and identifying solutions to expand SBU’s clinical research portfolio. These include providing institutional support for grant submissions, creating a research council to develop strategies for hiring and funding searches, and embracing a campuswide culture of inclusiveness for research opportunities.
She also heads SBU’s involvement in the Clinical and Translational Science Award, which aims to translate basic discoveries in the lab to healthcare programs and treatment in public communities around the country. Her work centers on expanding the size and scope of the Long Island Network for Clinical and Translational Science (LINCATS) to function as a “major and mature” CTSA hub.
“LINCATS’ mission is to promote greater health equity; respond to healthcare risks more effectively; and provide outreach, education and training — all with a special focus on underrepresented minorities and health disparities,” explained Abi-Dargham. While the objective is to serve the most pressing needs of this population of Long Island, “we’re also developing programs that act as models for other areas of the nation and integrating our efforts within the existing national network.”
With many other programs in the works, one that’s already implemented provides financial support for mentorship, as well as dedicated research time to help high schoolers apply for federal grants and establish independent research careers.
Looking to the future, Abi-Dargham also places significant emphasis on serving as a role model for young women in her field, right here at SBU.
“Anissa’s mentorship has allowed an entire team of scientists to work to their highest potential. Her sharp, strategic focus allows us to identify important research questions we can answer at Stony Brook,” said Katherine Jonas, postdoctoral fellow in the Renaissance School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry.
Smita Majumdar Das
Center for Prevention and Outreach
Focus on Mental Health
Smita Majumdar Das, director of the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO), has spent the past 15 years developing and overseeing culturally sensitive programs that help protect our campus from sexual violence and drug misuse and promote emotional health and physical well-being, all with a focus on prevention and early intervention. Under her leadership, CPO has secured more than $2 million in federal, state and local funding for programs including suicide prevention for Asian students, coordinated community response to violence against women, and steps to counter underage drinking.
“We have the resources, knowledge and support of visionary leaders, right here at Stony Brook University, to make a real difference in the field of mental health,” said Majumdar Das. “My goal is to do enough so that whoever comes after me can move forward with what my team and I have accomplished.”
These accomplishments include a centralized and ever-expanding Peer Education Program (PEP).
“In 2019, we brought all the existing PEP programs related to mental health under CPO’s purview, giving us a model that’s unified and sustainable and has a solid structure, clear goals and good metrics to measure success,” said Majumdar Das. “We are constantly looking to increase that network of ‘campus gatekeepers’ as we work to promote a culture of kindness, responsibility, compassion and respect.”
Every year, PEP trains more than 100 peer educators who then share what they’ve learned on topics such as substance abuse and recovery, mental health awareness, and suicide and interpersonal violence prevention with fellow students.
Elena Buser ’23 is a student health assistant at CPO. “I feel inspired when I can genuinely help my peers by teaching something they didn’t know before or connecting them to resources that can empower them to have a healthier lifestyle,” she said. “And it’s a chain reaction. Because once they learn something from us, they can teach their friends, and so on. It really is a great way to have a direct impact on the Stony Brook community.”
Majumdar Das also established “Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) Gatekeeper” suicide prevention training for students to help other students in need. To help faculty and staff respond to students in need, she also created the Red Book — a single website where they can quickly and conveniently find links to the broad spectrum of university resources to assist students in distress.
“These types of programs are perfect examples of the culture we’re constantly looking to build,” said Majumdar Das, “where peer-to-peer interactions can help prevent dangerous situations and even save lives — where students are really looking out for each other.”
Reaching beyond campus, Majumdar Das and her team are sharing the design and benefits of CPO programs with institutions across the state and country. The U.S. Department of Justice named her a leader in sexual violence prevention work. And in 2014, the DOJ chose SBU as one of the locations for its national campus tour on sexual violence and prevention outreach, based on the success of university programs such as “Green Dot” bystander intervention training. This powerful program teaches faculty and staff how to recognize, prevent and/or address “power-based personal violence,” such as sexual assault and stalking. These instructors then train students to help each other.
Majumdar Das’ influence extends to her own team as well. CPO Assistant Director Christine Szaraz shared her group’s sentiments when she said, “Smita encourages every person on our team to create, grow and achieve, as individuals and professionals, every day. I have increased my own competence and confidence as a result of our relationship.”
A huge believer in teamwork, Majumdar Das said, “A dream dies alone. A strong team, like the one I’m so fortunate to have, shares your dream. We’re fueled by each other’s enthusiasm and we’re reaching for the stars. Together.”
Ellen Cooke is the associate director of internal communications, Office of Marketing and Communications.